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March 19, 2010

TT: Formerly famous faces

Strikeout: I pan three plays, Looped, Zero Hour, and When the Rain Stops Falling, in today's Wall Street Journal drama column. Here's an excerpt.

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Broadway being what it is these days, I can't help but wonder exactly what the producers of "Looped" see as their target market. Tallulah Bankhead, the whiskey-voiced, omnivorously promiscuous subject of Matthew Lombardo's new play, used to be something of a theatrical icon, though she was always better known for her one-liners (some of which she actually said) than her stage performances. But Bankhead's failure to make any first-rate films means that she is now known to few people under the age of 40--better make that 60--and it's hard to see why anyone who doesn't know who she was would pay to see an unfunny dramedy that seeks to exploit her faded fame.

"Looped" is loosely based on a real-life occurrence in the pitiful second half of Bankhead's career. In 1965 she supposedly spent eight hours attempting to overdub a single line of dialogue in her last feature film, a bottom-of-the-bottom-of-the-barrel camp horror "classic" called "Die! Die! My Darling!" Out of that ignominous episode, Mr. Lombardo has woven a three-person play in which Bankhead (Valerie Harper) bumps up against a Hollywood film editor (Brian Hutchison) and sound engineer (Michael Mulheren) who attempt with minimal success to get her to speak her line coherently. In between takes she gets plastered, foams at the mouth with prefab wisecracks, tells the story of her life and induces the film editor to confess his Deep Dark Secret. Yes, he's gay, and believe me, I'm not telling you anything that you won't figure out several weeks before Mr. Lombardo spills the beans....

Unlike Tallulah Bankhead, Zero Mostel is reasonably well remembered, if not in the way he would have preferred. His much-larger-than-life performance in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," a movie that he claimed to loathe, has kept his memory green, and a fair amount of his essence also comes through on the original-cast album of "Fiddler on the Roof" and in the uneven film version of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But while "Zero Hour," written and performed by Jim Brochu and staged by none other than Piper Laurie, is a highly effective evocation of the public Mostel--Mr. Brochu looks and acts just like an Al Hirschfeld caricature--it doesn't add up to a full-fledged play....

I'm not quite sure that I'd pay to see David Cromer direct the Manhattan phone book, but I'd give it serious thought. Alas, "When the Rain Stops Falling," Andrew Bovell's droningly drab multigenerational saga of a comprehensively unhappy Anglo-Australian family, is more than a little bit phone-booky, Mr. Cromer's best efforts notwithstanding. This is the kind of show whose program includes a family tree--the action bounces back and forth between 1959 and 2039--and you don't get extra credit for guessing that somebody got molested somewhere up the line....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted March 19, 2010 12:00 AM

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